On Prejudice

Listening to monologues my eighth graders have written, I sometimes hear the natural aversion of youth to age. In a catalog of things that bug her, one girl includes how annoying it is to get stuck behind slow, saggy old people at the mall, and I smile. They write such things artlessly, and few of them stop to think—wait—Ms. Dubrava’s old. Those few glance at me quickly and quickly look away.

These thirteen-year-olds are used to me. Pardon: most have now turned fourteen and would abhor my saying otherwise. I’ve been their teacher nearly a semester, a significant period in their lives. Some of them have fallen in and out of love twice during that time. I’m lucky they notice me at all with such drama underway. Besides, I try to behave in a way that distracts them from remembering I’m old. I take them on brisk walks to a nearby park to write about nature or casually admit that profanity, judiciously used, may have a place in a good piece of writing.

Because I clearly remember my own, I don’t take offense at their biased age references. My adolescent years occurred mainly in Vero Beach, Florida. I recall walking on the beach with my boyfriend, passing senior citizens and feeling a slight repulsion. Those blooming bellies, drooping butts, jellied arms and thighs! “Gross,” I probably thought, since that was a word of the moment among the young. I don’t remember. What I do recall is vowing: “I am never going to let myself look like that.”

Well, of course. I was young and firm of flesh, without having to do anything. No exercise, no diet. How could it ever be any different? And I must have thought, as do the eighth graders in my classroom now, that the appalling appearance in a bathing suit was a choice. Why, those people must have let themselves age.

Whenever I do remind the children that I’m old, they say dismissively, “Oh, no, Ms. D, you’re not.” It is a wise child who flatters she who controls his grades. But, it is also saying: “we’re making an exception for you. We don’t like saggy old people, but we like you.”

One redeeming thing about the children is they are still, at this age, relatively bias-free, at least when it comes to their teachers. Here are the key questions: Do you like them? Do you know what you’re doing in the classroom? If the answer to those two questions is yes, then they’ll think you’re fine, whether you’re old, young, or have recurring halitosis.

This matter of age discrimination makes me recall the Chicanos. Back in the movimiento days of the seventies, I was frequently the only gringa in a group of friends. Giving me a hug, they would say, “you’re not white anymore: you’re one of us.”

I was always flattered then too. But, when you think about it, it’s prejudice, isn’t it? Unpacking that attitude results in acceptance dependent on pretending you’re not who you are. Same with the kids, who if they have decided they like me, deny my being so many decades different. But like ethnicity, these decades do indeed generate difference.

I suppose it’s our natural bias to like those who resemble us, to look askance on those who do not. A girl entered my classroom wearing earbuds, mouthing words. She realized that a girl she didn’t know was singing along to the same song. Squealing with delight, they finished the lyrics together, gushed about how much they loved that song and declared each other best friends forever.

Like some others, I veered off in another direction, attraction to those unlike me. Witness my years in black and Chicano communities, or my pleasure in hanging out with eighth graders now. I imagine this “opposites attract” trait defines Americans opposed to building border walls. Perhaps it’s also a feature of a new generation: my students, born in 2002, are accepting of the range of ethnicities and genders in their midst. One girl has declared herself Lesbian. “We love you,” they say. “Do you like camping? We heard that Lesbians like camping.” It is the world they live in and I enjoy being there.

We wrote list poems this semester, one variation being a set of instructions. One of the boys wrote “How to be a good person,” but his was mostly a list of prohibitions as it turned out. Don’t ignore your friends’ texts. Don’t forget to do your homework. Things like that. It also included, “don’t tell your grandmother she’s wrinkly.” We all giggled.

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Wisdom of Touch

Captain Al Keuning, 1963

Captain Al Keuning, 1963, and yes, that’s a cigar in his mouth

[He] maintained a practical, sentimental affection for the specific trade skills that were transformed into the character traits of the men who cultivated them. The draftsman who inked a right angle on a plan, the bricklayer who spread a base of fresh mortar and smoothed it with the trowel before placing the brick on top of it … the master craftsman who verified with a plumb line the verticality of a wall … Now his hands were too delicate … never had acquired the wisdom of touch he’d observed as a boy in his father and the men who worked with him.

Antonio Muñoz Molina, In the Night of Time, Trans. by Edith Grossman


My father sanded a teak deck, ran his hand over it to feel if it were sufficient. It was not. He re-sanded, cleaned the surface thoroughly before laying down the first coat of varnish, then another. Don’t think you’ll walk that deck in anything but bare feet or rubber-soled shoes, even if you are the owner.

Mom came home from her hospital graveyard shift to organize the meal we’d have that evening and see us off to school. Only then did she eat something herself and clean up the kitchen before finally going to bed, because dishes had to be done immediately after every meal, just as beds had to be made as soon as you were out of them in the morning.

She lived in a one-bedroom apartment for a few years after my father died, and I’d come from Denver the evening before, when she’d insisted I take the bed, had made up the couch for herself before I arrived. The time change resulted in my sleeping in. I woke hearing her in the kitchen, knew she’d been up for hours, hurried in the bathroom. By the time I went back to get dressed, the bed was made. “I can’t stand an unmade bed,” she said crisply.

That’s the dark side, but also a bearing wall in the edifice of work with your hands, the physical labor my parents did all their lives. One school summer I waitressed at the same diner as my mother did. She never stopped. If there were no customers to serve, she was wiping tables or filling saltshakers, but she never stopped. I still seldom know when to take a break.

Dad was captain of private yachts, swank vessels with pianos in their living rooms. When Captain Al was docking, boat basin workers would stop what they were doing and come to watch. He managed it so the 75-foot yacht slid smoothly into its berth with no more than a kiss on the piling bumpers. Seamen shook their heads and grinned. It was a fine thing to see.

In those days men worked on their cars. Dad changed oil, spark plugs and filters, replaced or rebuilt carburetors. Our cars never went to a repair shop. His tools were neatly arranged on a pegboard in the garage. A shelf was lined with mayonnaise jars of nuts and bolts and screws and washers, sorted by kind and size. He came home from varnishing a deck, ate and went out to the garage to putter around. He didn’t watch sports, had no hobbies but making and fixing things.

It is no wonder I have a weakness for physical work done well, the exercise of those skills that become the character of the one who practices them. When I was a teenager waitressing at Howard Johnson’s on U.S. 1, there was a breakfast cook, lean and dark. He always had a cigarette in his mouth, the ash lengthening over the grill, and somehow knew the exact moment to flick it into the ashtray on the counter, never dropped ash into an omelet. He cracked two eggs in one hand, never broke one or dropped shell fragments and they always came out the way you’d ordered them: over easy, medium, hard. I was enchanted.

Or recently, the way the Mexican roofers didn’t blink over our steep roof others had declined to scale. Their toes lodged between rafters like mountaineers, they nonchalantly and rapidly pried loose layers of old tiles.

My father placed a palm on a tire, then moved it, appearing to listen like a doctor with a stethoscope, until he’d taken the temperature of several places on that tire. “It’s wearing unevenly,” he announced, and went about rebalancing it. Something in the feel of it on the road had led to that examination. How I admired that in my father. How I wanted to achieve in my own work and life that wisdom of touch.


Posted in Memoir | 2 Comments

Musings in the process of translating Manual Para Enamorarse by Mónica Lavín, provisionally titled Handbook for Falling in Love

As in every translation project, many sentences want rearranging, and nice long ones need to be broken up. Syntax, syntax! If you don’t read Spanish, simply note that the following is a single sentence and move on. It doesn’t matter.

Así fue como me encerré durante las tardes de un mes con sus fines de semana aludiendo, cuando mis colegas o mi hermana me invitaban a comer algunos fines de semana preocupados por mi soltería, recrudecida a los cincuenta y cinco años, al texto de divulgación sobre historiadores notables que escribía para alumnos de bachillerato.

Ah, that fact-filled dependent clause loitering at length between alluding and the alluded to! Smooth in Spanish, but in plain English, the above becomes at least two sentences and puts Rodolfo’s alluding with his alluded to book for high school students.

Two problematic words reside in that one sentence as well. (Lavín has an extensive vocabulary, likes to exercise it.) Recrudecida also exists in English: recrudescent means to break out again after lying latent; to become harsh or raw. In Spanish, crudo, like crude, means raw. I remember its slang use back in the day here in Denver amongst Chicanos. A cruda was a hangover. The morning after, someone might groan, “going to get some menudo, man; gotta repair my crude.”

But fond as that memory is, it isn’t what’s needed here. Colleagues and sister are worried about Rodolfo’s singleness, about his regressing to behavior they’d all hoped never to see from him again. At his age.

The second problem is “divulgation.” Although it also exists in English, we chiefly use the verb “divulge:” to reveal, make public. Rodolfo is writing a texto de divulgación, a text revealing all about well-known historians. So should it be an exposé?

There are always words I get blocked on: in one case, “indispensability” is the literal translation and will not do. Necessity? Boring. Brain not firing. Go get coffee.

Some words or phrases I change immediately: “successfully published books” become bestsellers, “the tone of truth” becomes the ring of truth. Others require mulling over: “wherein I lowered the intelligence level”…should that be “I dumbed it down,” or is that too colloquial for Rodolfo?

Don’t buy strawberry jam, Rodolfo advices. Be imaginative: add cinnamon to orange marmalade. But isn’t grape our ubiquitous jelly? This requires research. Turns out strawberry is preferred by 48% of Americans, compared to 40% who buy grape, in data from 2011 – 2015. Who knew we had so much in common with Mexicans?

Carmela and Rafael are a singing duo of romantic ballads whose career spanned fifty years. They married and stayed married, and their album covers show them embraced or singing practically lip-to-lip, from their young and luscious years to the wrinkles and wattles of age.

American readers, even the tiny sliver of them who read literature in translation, are not going to know who Carmela and Rafael are, nor how perfect an example they make for the kind of photo Luisa wants on that book jacket.

This is one of those translation dilemmas that induce despair. Who have we got to fill that void? Sonny and Cher? Long ago divorced. Johnny Cash and June Carter? Who even sings those bolero kinds of songs? Compared to Carmela and Rafael, we seem jaded. And notice, how in English, we put the man’s name first?

Rodolfo is dressed like an intellectual when Luisa meets him. How is that? I wonder. Luisa gives me a clue by assessing him with a glance and saying she had imagined he wouldn’t dress like an executive, since he’s a writer. So he’s not in suit and tie.

Long ago, at the school where I taught, a rich couple were considering giving us a lot of money. I was one of the teachers selected to attend the meeting. Everyone cleaned up for it. I wore a nice dress and low sensible heels. The principal was in a suit. Our potential benefactors arrived in jeans and t-shirts. Expensive jeans and t-shirts, mind you, and glowing, expensive tans in the middle of winter among us pasty-faced workers, but still.

We have never liked intellectuals in America. So I don’t want to say, “dressed like an intellectual.” Rodolfo had just come from an academic presentation of some sort. We are acutely class conscious in this country, whether we admit it or not. If I say he’s wearing jeans and a tweed jacket, readers will know where to put it.

Jitomates are also featured. Those are just Mexican tomatoes. But in this story, they are more than tomatoes too. Luisa is a redhead, and she turns this thing around. You’ll have to read it. But I have at least two more drafts to go.

Oh, those rich people who visited our school? They gave their money to someone else.




Posted in Translation, Writing | 3 Comments

Computer Upgrade Blues

Phil’s upgrading my laptop from OS 10.0 to OS 10.9999 or something. In terms I can understand, from private to El Capitan. I enter the upgrade process with dread. Whatever problems it solves (like stopping those nasty “Alert! We’re not supporting you anymore!” messages) it will certainly create others: it always does.

The operation takes hours, hours of not being able to use my laptop, to which I am attached as if by umbilical cord. I have to resist starting up my MacBook as soon as I’m out of bed. Sure, I can check email on my phone, but I can’t type words, many words, enough words to make many long lovely sentences, pooling into sweet eddies of paragraphs, releasing the streams of thought and feeling I cannot leave pent up inside. Besides, it’s easier to play solitaire and watch videos on the laptop.

When the upgrade is finally done, everything looks different, as if I came home after a hard day and while I was gone my Mission oak had been swapped for Danish modern. I stare at the menu bar, trying to figure out what’s wrong with it.

“They changed the font. They changed it all to Helvetica!” I cry.

“It’s not Helvetica,” Phil says in the patient voice he defaults to in tech support mode. “It’s a font that’s more readable on the screen.”

“It’s a san serif font! San serif is never more readable,” I yell. This is the man who taught me the difference between display and reading fonts and now he’s flipping his position like a Republican presidential candidate. Is nothing sacred? “Where’s my Times New Roman?”

“Well, if you don’t like it, you can research how—”

“Wait,” I interrupt, feeling a knot of panic in my gut. “Where’s the folder of poems I was working on? I left it right here.”

“Honey, go to your docs folder.” Now he’s speaking in that “you’re an idiot who doesn’t know how computers work” tone.

“I know what a doc folder is.” Click, click, click, I madly open the folder, scroll its contents and announce triumphantly. “Not here.”

“Open this,” Phil suggests. I do. “Oh, look: another docs folder.”

Suddenly I have a dim recollection of having had two docs folders before, but I don’t mention it. The knot in my stomach releases. “Oh, there are the poems. Good. But why does my email look like this? I don’t like it. Can I get the old format back?”

I can’t send emails. Each email I try to send pops up a dialog box saying “no can do.” I keep trying, of course, hitting send, getting the same polite “no can do” message over and over again. You’d think, after you’d done that a dozen times, the message would change to: “What about ‘NO’ don’t you understand?”

I receive emails just fine, as I find out from a new feature that makes me snarl: a banner flashes across the top of my screen telling me about an incoming email when I’m working. I’m working, and just had the right sentence percolating in my brain and you want to interrupt me to say Janie posted on Facebook and I’m getting this email because she’s my friend? Janie has nothing to say to me. She’s posting a video of a penguin. That shit is not happening. I turn those notifications off.

My dock insists on having tiny icons that enlarge when you run the cursor over them as if you were using a magnifying glass. I hate that too. The photos I had on screensaver have disappeared. I haven’t had time to look for them. And the names of all my files are in some repulsive san serif font that might as well be Helvetica and I do not have time to screw around finding out how to change it. I’m on deadline. I have a blog to write.

The next morning, I start up my laptop and that little gray line, the progress indicator bar, doesn’t move…and finally produces a dialog box that says “OS X” and gives four choices: Restore from Time Machine Backup, Reinstall OSX, Get Help Online or Disk Utility. This happens when I have to go teach my class and wanted to check which kids emailed me their stories. I carry my baby, my precious laptop, without which no writing exists, straight to Phil, wailing all the way: “Honeeeeeeee.”

I go to teach and Phil, because he is a magician, magically fixes whatever it was and now I can send mail and I’m adjusting to the odd look of everything, but the next thing I need to kill is email spelling check. I’m writing a friend to meet for brunch at Zaidy’s and it autocorrects to Zaire. What the hell? You’re El Capitan and can’t even recognize the Yiddish everyone knows?

Posted in Humor | 6 Comments